Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with the newest Trenton Devils goalie, Jeff Lerg, for a lengthy interview.
After a very successful collegiate career at Michigan State that culminated with a 2007 Frozen Four title, the undersized netminder signed his first professional contract with the New Jersey Devils organization. But injuries to both knees have delayed the five foot, six inch tall goaltender’s much-anticipated pro debut. As you’ll see, it’s just something else he’ll have had to overcome…
Mike Ashmore: Every goalie seems to have that story of how they became a goalie…what’s yours?
Jeff Lerg: “I started really young. Mite house is where you first start playing. Everyone plays forward at that time, and you rotate through and everyone plays goalie for one game. It was my turn, and I was always interested. Everyone wants to be goalie when you’re young, because you get the cool equipment and everything. I liked it, but my dad didn’t like the idea of it at first, because nobody in my family was ever a goalie…none of my cousins or relatives or anything. He said we’ll try it out one year, and he said if I really like it, we’ll stay at it, and I did. I made a travel team right off the bat and went from there.”
Ashmore: I was doing some research before talking with you, and I was surprised to learn that you use a Nebulizer before games…do you still have to do that?
Lerg: “Yeah. Games and practices and everything. I did it today, obviously. Pretty much before every skate. Usually with workouts, I’m OK getting by with inhalers, especially if it’s not on the ice. But anything that’s on the ice, it’s a different strain on the body, I guess.”
Ashmore: How long have you had to do that?
Lerg: “Since I was four years old. Yeah, ever since I was young…I never really had to adjust to anything, because it’s always been a part of my life when I played hockey, played soccer, did whatever. Before you go to school and everything, it was always just do it.”
Ashmore: So whether it be for that, or whether it be for your size…did you ever have people telling you that you weren’t going to be an athlete?
Lerg: “Yeah. I think doctors at first were a little apprehensive, because I played a lot of sports when I was young. But I said nothing was bothering me, and if I can tolerate it, play it. No one really told me I couldn’t be an athlete, but I don’t think anybody believed I could excel at the levels I have in the past, with junior hockey and college and everything. It always good to prove people wrong. Now, I’m at a new stepping stone where I’m trying to do the same thing.”
Ashmore: Especially being a goalie, I would imagine that being smaller would present some challenges. What do you feel like are the advantages and disadvantages of being a smaller goalie?
Lerg: “Right now, the advantage to me in my game is quickness. As you get older and as you get to the higher levels, the game gets quicker. So if that’s my advantage, I don’t really see people’s thinking points of why I can’t succeed. If the game is quicker, and quickness is my strength, then I should be OK at it. Obviously, the accuracy of the shots and the quickness of the game does pick up, plays happen quicker. The saves that goalies make where are big, and they just kind of hit them and they don’t have to react to, I don’t have that luxury. I have to react to almost every save. Sometimes, goalies make saves just from being in position…they don’t even see it, and it hits them, and I don’t have that luxury, so I have to find ways to make those saves.”
Ashmore: Making the run that you did with Michigan State in 2007, nobody really thought your team could pull that off. You had to beat so many good teams; Maine, Boston College, Boston University, Notre Dame. If you could, take me through your memories of that tournament and coming out on top…
Lerg: “Actually, the year before that kind of gave us some confidence. We made it to the NCAA tournament, and we made it to the Elite Eight. We won the first game against a good team in New Hampshire. Then, we had a game with Maine that we lost, so we were kind of motivated to maybe get a shot at them again. We came through, and our first game was against Boston University, a great team. Once we saw our bracket, we saw it was doable. We were like hey, we can really do something here. Everyone just kind of came together and believed, and we won that game and we played really well and our confidence grew. We played a division opponent in Notre Dame and we’d played them for a couple years and were 1-1. Everybody was hyping them, but we knew that we could beat them. We played our game. It was a tight game. From there, we got our rematch with Maine and our heads were focused and we were motivated for that and found a way to win. We were the underdog against Boston College, and our group just really stuck together and we knew we had what it took to win it all. We just kind of stuck with it, stuck with it, got a couple goals late and ended up winning.”
Ashmore: I’m sure people ask you about that championship game all the time, but the one save you made that must stand out is the one you made against Brian Boyle, who’s up in the NHL now. What do you remember about that save?
Lerg: “That was definitely the best save of my life at that time. I think I’ve made more acrobatic saves than that, but at the moment, the time, and the stage it was on it, it was definitely a save that I’ll never forget. Obviously, it’s nice to have it against a guy that’s in the NHL right now, it’s kind of a little bit of bragging rights there, at least. But that was a fun time, we were living in the moment.”
Ashmore: Despite the numbers you put up, you went undrafted. Were you kind of surprised that no team was willing to even spend a late round pick on you? Is that something you were expecting?
Lerg: “Usually in hockey, you get drafted when you’re younger; when you’re 16 and 17. At that point, really the only thing they look at is size and maybe your physical abilities up to that point. And that’s interesting, because a lot of the goalies that got drafted that year, I’d already beaten or had outplayed them when I had played against them, and they were 6′ 2″, and I was 5′ 6″ or 5′ 5″, whatever. I got overlooked, but I knew that was going to happen. I was never expecting it. That’s why I like the path that I’m on. I’ve got to get better every day and keep improving, and keep proving to myself that I can do it and keep proving to others that I can do it at every level. So I like my path better than having it handed to you. I like having to prove people wrong.”
Ashmore: So when did NHL teams start knocking? I’d imagine after the championship year, you really put yourself on the map…
Lerg: “I think that was huge for my career, being on that stage like that at the Frozen Four, maybe I got some publicity for myself and the team. I think people really started to notice that I can win. What I had done to that point was try to win at every level, and I had a winning junior career that I was proud of, and maybe that put me on the map for college. I had a winning college career, so that put me on the map here. Now, my whole goal here, is people like winners. If I can go out, play well, and win some games, no one usually turns that down.”
Ashmore: I’d have to think there were a couple of other teams that were interested in you. Why sign with the Devils?
Lerg: “Actually, no one else really wanted to sign me besides New Jersey as an American League deal. I was only offered one American League deal, and that was with New Jersey, and they were the most serious about it. There were a handful of teams that were talking maybe, but when it got down to it, they took the guy that was 6′ 2″ or 6′ 4″ instead of me again, so that’s what keeps me motivated to play against those type of teams. I pretty much know every goalie that’s been taken over me. They might not know it, but I get amped up to play them.”
Ashmore: Your knees…you played with a torn ACL last year, and then you hurt the other knee this year, is that what happened?
Lerg: “I had torn my ACL last year in the last regular season week, and then we had playoffs the next weekend. So with about four games left, I tore it. I knew something wasn’t right. I felt it go, but it wasn’t as swollen as it should have been, I guess my body was trying to fight it. I played with it for three games, I sat out one because I could barely even walk. I got through it, and it was an interesting thing trying to play without one, I definitely couldn’t play or move the way I wanted to. I had surgery right away at the end of the year, so I couldn’t really start my pro career at the end of the year, because I had surgery right away. I was trying to get healthy for this year, and a week before New Jersey’s camp, I tore the other one. It was just a matter of the body being worn down, but they’re better now than they ever have been, so that’s not an issue anymore. For me, it’s just getting my game back and getting the strength back. But the knees are OK, and I don’t even think about it now.”
Ashmore: So how do you play with a torn ACL as a goalie? That blows my mind…with all the lateral movement and all the pushing off, that couldn’t have been easy…
Lerg: “For me, I have to explode to a lot of saves, I’m not just a guy that can gradually go. I’ve got to get out, get back, get up, get down, move side to side, so I’m not just stationery. It was kind of tough. For me, it was just adrenaline and motivation. It was my senior night, and it was my first game without my ACL, and we were playing against the number one team in the country. I wasn’t going to miss my last game. Fortunately, we played well enough to keep it close. Same thing with the playoffs. I couldn’t play the way I wanted, bottom line. It was all determination, but some goals went in that probably shouldn’t have at that point. It was the end of the year, so we kind of knew it was almost over.”
Ashmore: You’ve been here for a couple weeks now, what’s your experience been like on your first pro team?
Lerg: “It’s been real good. I actually know a lot of these guys, having played with them growing up and playing against them growing up, so I know a lot of the guys. It’s been a good experience. It’s definitely a step up from college, guys are better, guys are more mature. It’s exciting, the team is making a run right now and we’re doing good, and it’s good to be a part of a team instead of sitting at home like I was for five months. Wandering without a team isn’t really a good feeling. It’s nice to be a part of something here. I’m just excited to set my foot in the water and possibly get a couple of games to finish this whole process. When you don’t play a game for a year, and it would be almost a year now, it’s just a tough situation. I feel like I’m healthy for a game. I felt good in practice, it’s just a matter of time here.”
Ashmore: So how anxious are you to just get out there and get your pro debut under your belt?
Lerg: “It’s very exciting. In college, I made 64 straight starts at one time, so now I haven’t started in a whole calendar year. I’m used to game, after game, after game and preparation and everything like that. I just really want to get back in the flow of everything. I’m a goalie that gets better with repetition…the more I play, the better I get. So it’s a frustrating thing just itching, waiting to play. I just want to get that first one under me and work on getting my game back.”
Ashmore: I’m sure you see the situation here, where Dave Caruso has kind of taken the reigns and run with it…so how realistic of a situation do you feel like it is for you to actually get in there this season?
Lerg: “Whether it’s one start, or four or five maybe, I know when I talked to the organization when I first came down here three weeks ago, they said once you’re off, we’ll get you in there. I know it’s a matter of time. I’ve been a goalie before, where if you’re hot and your team’s playing well and you’re winning, you don’t change it. Obviously, that’s part of the game, so I’m definitely not rooting against our team or anything like that. It’s just I know if I keep working hard and getting better, my time will come and I’ll have to take advantage of my time to play and get some confidence, and hopefully I can get another game after that.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com